When I first became an adoptive mother, my daughter received numerous comments of adoration. Strangers would smile and remark that her chocolate-brown skin, her perfect afro, and her large, brown, lash-lined eyes were “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” or “cute.” Of course, I did see the occasional surprised look when a person would peak into my stroller and notice that my child wasn’t pink-skinned, and I’d sometimes be asked if the child was mine, where she was adopted from, or why her biological parents didn’t “keep” her. I felt the like comments were played in a loop. They were predictable and became our norm.
What I didn’t anticipate was the questions I received from various professionals, the individuals I thought would uphold neutrality and stick to the essential questions that pertained to our reason for visiting.
My oldest daughter was struggling with eczema, so I took her, along with her younger sister, to a local dermatologist. While the doctor examined my daughter’s skin she asked, “Are the girls real sisters?” I recall being so shocked that I murmured some muddled sentence in response.
A few months later, I was at my yearly gynecologist appointment when the doctor’s assistant asked, out of the blue, if I planned to tell my children they were adopted. I had to hold back my laughter. There I sat, in my all my white-ness, paper-gown wrapped glory, with my brown-skinned girls in their strollers.
As the years went by, I became more confident in my motherhood and in my ability to quickly and effectively answer the oddest and rudest of inquiries. So imagine my surprise when just this winter, I was completing standard insurance information for my daughter’s tonsil surgery, when the registry attendant asked if I had my “paperwork.” “Paperwork?” I asked. “Is your daughter adopted?” she asked, gesturing toward the adjoining waiting room where my daughter and husband sat waiting. I confirmed that yes, she was adopted, to which the attendant said, “Her adoption paperwork.” I responded that I don’t ever carry adoption paperwork with me. The attendant said that “they” might ask for it. Unsure of who “they” were and certainly not willing to comply with such a race-driven request, I repeated that I didn’t carry paperwork with me. My child’s name was on our insurance card and on all the other standard documentation we provided.
I do understand that professionals are people, and they have curiosity, assumptions, and biases just like anyone else. They come to the table with experiences and concerns. They are not immune to the media’s portrayal of adoption or stereotypes. They are not perfect, nor should we expect them to be.
But what I do expect is respect, privacy, and withheld judgment. This can start by professionals not asking these burning questions:
1. “Are they all yours?” It’s safe to assume any number of children, no matter how differently they look from one another, are all mine. And even if they are not, say I’m watching a friend’s child or escorting my nephew somewhere, the answer really isn’t any of your business. Asking if they are “all” mine demonstrates that you are questioning the authenticity of my family based on appearances.
2. “Are they real siblings?” I guess my definition of “real” is different from yours. To me, my family is as real as it gets. My kids argue together, bathe together, cry together, play together, celebrate holidays together. I really love them. They really love me. I’m their real mom, they are my real kids, and we are a real family. Substituting the word “real” for “biological” doesn’t make your question any more appropriate. Unless we are trying to get a child a new kidney and are searching for a biological relative, I don’t want to hear the “real” question.
3. “Where are they from?” or “Are they foster kids?” We’ve received the “where are they from” question so many times, because the assumption is that if kids have brown skin (or are of Asian decent, etc.) that they cannot possibly be from the United States. Newsflash: the United States consists of people of many different races and ethnicities. And though many children are adopted from other countries, where they are from is usually not going to provide you with an answer to anything besides your nosiness. Furthermore, asking if a child is a “foster kid” or not puts a child on the spot and can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and hurt.
4. “Do you have your paperwork?” Asking for paperwork proving my child is mine, outside of what is within reason, is insulting because this question would never be asked of a same-race family. Racism and adoptism is the basis for an adoption paperwork request when standard documentation (such as an insurance card, birth certificate, etc.) has already been provided. If you are going to ask for my “paperwork,” you should ask for it from every person.
5. “Why weren’t you able to have your own children?” First, any children who are in my family are “my own.” Secondly, unless I’m at a professional’s office to discuss the reason I chose adoption, the answer to this question is none of your concern. Usually this question is asked so that the person can judge the worthiness of one’s decision to choose adoption over having biological children.
Many people have White Coat Syndrome, the fear of visiting a medical professional’s office. I argue that the fears associated with visiting a doctor extend to visiting any professional. Seeking help isn’t usually easy, sometimes because we are already having a hard time dealing with a particular situation or circumstance. When the professional, the one a person trusts to be knowledgeable and helpful, chooses to delve into personal curiosity and judgment, adoptive parents are prompted to feel less-than, inauthentic, and defensive.
Professionals, please remember that the time and place to explore your adoption curiosities is not during an appointment with a client, patient, or customer. Stick to your job. Do it well. And most of all, encourage us to want to seek help again when needed.